Former ACLU Leader Talks Defending Nazis Right To March And The Ongoing Need To Protect Speech
[guest post by Dana]
In an in-depth interview at Reason, Former Executive Director Ira Glasser considers today’s uninformed views on free speech:
I went to one of the half-dozen best law schools in the country a year or two ago to speak. And it was a gratifying sight to me, because the audience was a rainbow. There were as many women as men. There were people of every skin color and every ethnicity. It was the kind of thing that when I was at the ACLU 20, 30, 40 years ago was impossible. It was the kind of thing we dreamed about. It was the kind of thing we fought for. So I’m looking at this audience and I am feeling wonderful about it. And then after the panel discussion, person after person got up, including some of the younger professors, to assert that their goals of social justice for blacks, for women, for minorities of all kinds were incompatible with free speech and that free speech was an antagonist.
As I said, when I came to the ACLU, my major passion was social justice, particularly racial justice. But my experience was that free speech wasn’t an antagonist. It was an ally. It was a critical ally. I said this to the audience, and I was astonished to learn that most of them were astonished to hear it—I mean, these were very educated, bright young people, and they didn’t seem to know this history—I told them that there is no social justice movement in America that has ever not needed the First Amendment to initiate its movement for justice, to sustain its movement for justice, to help its movement survive.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew it. Margaret Sanger knew it. [The labor leader] Joe Hill knew it. I can think of no better explication of it than the late, sainted John Lewis, who said that without free speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings. And that’s historically and politically true without exception. For people who today claim to be passionate about social justice to establish free speech as an enemy is suicidal.
Among the subjects discussed in depth is whether Glasser believes that today’s ACLU would defend the Nazis’ right to march in the streets by opposing government restrictions on their speech and the continuing misperceptions of what took place and the ongoing need to protect everyone’s right to speech:
What the public sees is, “Oh, there’s the ACLU representing the Nazis.” We never see it that way. We were trying to oppose the government using the insurance bond requirement to prevent free speech. For us it didn’t matter who the client was, because we would use that client to strike down the bond requirements, and that would apply to everybody.
I used to joke that when people would say the trouble with free speech in America is that so few people support it, my response was always, “No, you’re wrong. Everybody in America supports free speech so long as it’s theirs or people they agree with.” Even in our own membership, the perception was that the ACLU was representing Nazis, not that the ACLU was opposing a government restriction on your speech.
Glasser also points out that it’s not one’s party affiliation that determines who protects and who attacks civil liberties and free speech. Rather it’s about who holds power:
Next to slavery and the homicidal, genocidal destruction of American Indians, the worst civil liberties violation that occurred in this country en masse was the incarceration of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. You know which president signed that executive order? Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a god in my parents’ house because he had saved them from ruin financially. But for me, the antagonist of civil liberties and free speech is not this or that party; it’s power, whoever holds it.
Recently, I read Thomas Chatterton Williams’ (TCW) Self-Portrait in Black and White for a book club made up of similarly educated and socially justice-minded people that Glasser describes above. Briefly, TCW, who was born to a black father and a white mother and is married to a white woman, examines race and identity after his first child is born with blonde hair and blue eyes. During what proved to be the most controversial portion of the book, TCW shares how his elderly, beloved French grandmother-in-law kept “an astonishing, thick-lipped, bug-eyed porcelain head of a slave or servant woman on her coffee table (lidded and hollow inside, meant to hold bonbons, keys, and other knickknacks)”. He comments that “whenever I am in the living room where this keepsake is displayed, I am incapable of denying it my attention.” The book club was appalled that the grandmother-in-law did this. But they were even more appalled that TCW, and especially his white wife did not tell her that it was unacceptable to have such an item on display [in the privacy of her own home]. The group also believed that anyone who saw it had a moral obligation to confront her about it, enlighten her to its offensiveness, and demand that it be removed from view. Interestingly though, this was in spite of TCW describing to readers how he worked through the shock at seeing the object and eventually realized that it wasn’t representative of something he had personally experienced and thus was not obligated to react to it. He did note that, at the end of the day, “…there will be incalculable small, unfortunate situations such as the one I have recounted, instances of micro-aggression brought about in limited spaces between the racist past and a more perfect future. They can either be seized on and blown up or deemphasized whenever possible. To do the latter, it’s inevitable that someone will have to make the first move. I am more committed to getting to that more perfect future than I am to always moving second.” This did not go over well with the group.
My very unpopular take was that it was indeed, an offensive piece of pottery, yet it was a piece of pottery that a homeowner displayed within the privacy of her home. I believed that it was a form of speech. Her home, her speech. Thus, I wouldn’t have made any demands for her to remove it. However, I’m also pretty sure that I wouldn’t want much of anything to do with anyone who knowingly displayed such an object (as opposed to being ignorant about it, or displaying it as part of a historical collection).
Anyway, after a hush of disbelief, followed by an intense pushback at my take, came an incredulous demand of disbelief: “So, what, you would defend allowing the Nazis to march on the streets of America too??”
Good morning.Dana (cc9481) — 12/29/2020 @ 9:39 am
In my youth, the strongest supporters of free speech were flaming liberals. William O Douglas was very nearly an absolutist on the subject. Mario Savio led the Free Speech movement at Berzerkley. “Speaking Truth to Power” was a common slogan on the Left.
Now, of course, it’s all changed. But what that tells me is not that the Left has changed it’s position, it’s that the Left is in control. They control the venues and now they really don’t want to have their Power challenged with Truth.Kevin M (ab1c11) — 12/29/2020 @ 9:56 am
Note to the Press: You should not expect Freedom of the Press to survive where Freedom of Speech dies.
Democracy Dies in Silence.Kevin M (ab1c11) — 12/29/2020 @ 9:57 am
The one thing I’ve learned over the years of commenting is that it’s a constant battle against the hard left and others to protect the kind of speech that they don’t want to hear. We can still hate Nazis while protecting their rights to express themselves.Paul Montagu (77c694) — 12/29/2020 @ 10:03 am
I briefly joined the ACLU back in the 90’s when Glasser was running it. The first piece of mail I got from them was an anti-GOP screed, talking about the need to work for the election of Democrats. Even then they had become yet another Democrat Party front.Kevin M (ab1c11) — 12/29/2020 @ 10:04 am
We can still hate Nazis while protecting their rights to express themselves.
More practically, allowing hate speech to be uttered lets us know who the haters are. They may have a right to speak, but I have a right not to associate with them, and certainly no duty to listen.Kevin M (ab1c11) — 12/29/2020 @ 10:06 am
I’ve never been a huge fan of the ACLU, but I at least always admired their staunch commitment to free speech, even when it meant holding unpopular positions such as tolerating flag burning or allowing Nazis to march in Skokie. But today’s ACLU is nothing more than a woke social justice outfit enmeshed in the Democrat/progressive coalition masquerading as principled defender of our Constitutional liberties. I could sort of understand them ceding the defense of campus speech to FIRE and religious freedoms to the Becket Fund in the same way in which they have always let the NRA take the lead on Second Amendment issues, except for the fact that the ACLU has then come out in opposition to due process on campus and their general hostility to free exercise of religion in the public sphere. Frankly, they are little more these days than another leftist NGO in the Democrat/progressive coalition, standing alongside NARAL, the SEIU, the NEA, AFSCME, the Sierra Club, and others, and they no longer deserve what grudging respect conservatives might have given them in the past for at least being consistent defenders of the Constitution.JVW (ee64e4) — 12/29/2020 @ 10:07 am
Yes, it is vital to protect the rights of those whom we disdain because we know that essentially, those are our rights that are being protected as well. My fellow book club members have trouble with that principle.Dana (cc9481) — 12/29/2020 @ 10:09 am
Now, of course, it’s all changed. But what that tells me is not that the Left has changed it’s position, it’s that the Left is in control. They control the venues and now they really don’t want to have their Power challenged with Truth.
To his credit, that’s exactly what Mr. Glasser seems to be acknowledging.JVW (ee64e4) — 12/29/2020 @ 10:09 am
Agreed. Advocating for free speech when you are against the status quo is easy. Reigning it in when you are the status quo is also easy. The left has gone from fighting the man to being the man, especially in the social justice arena. They simply can’t stand to have their views challenged.
This is actually a good sign – it is a sign of sclerosis. A sclerotic political movement cannot last.Hoi Polloi (139bf6) — 12/29/2020 @ 10:31 am
I remember when I was in high school, it was 1979 or 1980 a lawyer from the ACLU spoke at my synagogue. It may have been Glasser. He spoke about defending the neo-Nazi’s wanting to march through Skokie and then joining a counter protest against them. He said protecting their first amendment rights was important because it protected our rights to free speech. That if their rights weren’t protected, if their rights could be taken away that one day our rights too could be taken away.Mattsky (55d339) — 12/29/2020 @ 12:01 pm
Fantastic post, Dana. Thank you. Great comments from everyone; I thank you, too.felipe (630e0b) — 12/29/2020 @ 2:15 pm
Thank you, felipe. I appreciate that.Dana (cc9481) — 12/29/2020 @ 2:20 pm
Vis a vis the grandmother I think it’s too far to demand she remove it but explaining why it is shocking or hurtful is completely appropriate.nate (1f1d55) — 12/29/2020 @ 5:34 pm
In the last election, I worked hand in hand with the ACLU lawyers in New Mexico. Despite significant pressure from other political organizations (Demos, primarily) to figure out ways to screw with “Trump caravans” making their way from polling place to polling place on Election Day, the ACLU lawyers were (without exception, and in the face of significant pressure) steadfast in their belief that such conduct was absolutely a matter of political speech (not “voter intimidation”), and in no way enjoinable. This was absolutely to the ACLU’s credit, in my mind.
So – JVW – maybe there are different ACLU philosophies in different jurisdictions. The ACLU’s impulse to defend free speech remains strong in New Mexico.Leviticus (7c76a2) — 12/29/2020 @ 6:24 pm
That’s certainly reassuring, Leviticus. I can’t imagine the level of pressure.
I hope you and your family had a happy Christmas.Dana (cc9481) — 12/29/2020 @ 6:35 pm
Very interesting post, Dana. Thanks for putting it together.Leviticus (18dc68) — 12/30/2020 @ 8:12 am
You may choose not to associate with grandmama because of her racism/speech (in home decor), but you attend book club with folks who don’t understand the point of free speech. I am not criticizing that but they are similar to me, so how do you decide to associate with one group and not associate with grandmama?DRJ (aede82) — 12/30/2020 @ 9:12 am
The book club was established by family members as a way to keep my 90-year mom engaged and actively involved in discussing selected books or current events, etc. She has been on lockdown at her living facility since March, and we were concerned about the impact of such long-term isolation. With Zoom, and tapping into her voracious appetite for reading, the book club has had a positive impact on the quality of her life.
It is true that the other members see free speech through a narrow lens. And, I would suggest that their progressive politics feed into their misperceptions. This, unfortunately, makes for strained discussions about books like the one mentioned in the post. Yet, I’m unwilling to cut off and disassociate with people I love.Dana (cc9481) — 12/30/2020 @ 9:55 am
As long as the security organs have enough notice to deploy their cameras with facial recognition at the sites of the protests, all citizens should feel free to peacefully assemble in public, express their political views, and voice their grievances.nk (1d9030) — 12/30/2020 @ 10:12 am
They didn’t see it – they only have the description in the book to go buy. It could be it was a caricature of a person, and showing a person in a more or less demeaning role, but who says this was showing a slave. Blacks continued to be commonly employed as domestic workers for many years after 1865. They were paid money, in many cases more money than they could get elsewhere or else they would not have taken those jobs, or taken it at the particular households they were working in, and they could quit, especially if they didn’t get along well with the housewife. People may find this stereotype grating, but it is just art, and if there is something to oppose, it’s just mild.
This grandmother-in-law didn’t even say she wanted such a servant. And this was almost certainly made after the days fof slavery. I have a cookie jar that’s probably been in my family since the 1950s, that shows, besides abstract design, a man twice, or maybe two different men, that look maybe Indian or Mexican I don’t know what they’re doing – they might be a guru – I don’t know what they are supposed to be. It sits on top of the refrigerator. It no longer has any cookies in it, and hasn’t had for many years, and no longer either has highlighters in it, but is just empty. The cover has a handle that has a dog to pick it up with.Sammy Finkelman (69aa73) — 12/30/2020 @ 12:41 pm